January is a great time for star gazing

SUMMER in Australia is great for sky gazers. We have some of the best skies in the world, full of bright stars, prominent constellations and fascinating celestial sights. Lots of budding astronomers get their start in January, using telescopes they got for a Christmas present.

Maybe you're one of them and need a target at which to point it, or perhaps you just want something to do on a warm, clear summer night. Now is a great time to step outside and learn something about our solar system and the universe around you.

"Stargazing need not be complicated," internationally recognised Australian astronomer Dave Reneke said.

"If you can find the moon, you're on your way to becoming a backyard astronomer."

Mr Reneke is an astronomy lecturer, teacher, author, broadcaster and a feature writer for major Australian newspapers and Australasian Science magazine.

Nothing in the night sky is easier to study than the moon. With no equipment, you can make out the face and see subtle colour differences on the surface.

Binoculars or a small telescope will reveal stunning views of craters, especially on nights when the moon is not full. Many of these craters formed more than four billion years ago when asteroids and comet impacts were more common. Study the region where light and dark meet and shadows are deepest.

Equally as stunning and hard to miss at the moment is Venus shining brilliantly in the eastern sky, just before sunrise. Venus was called the goddess of love in Greek mythology, but we know it better as the 'morning star'.

A small telescope will reveal an even more dazzling sight, Jupiter and its moons. You could see one, two, three or four pinpricks of light lined up in a row, very near the planet. They're the moons of Jupiter. Jupiter is readily visible as an oval disc in binoculars, and is an amazing sight in a small telescope. Look for it as a brilliant object almost overhead about 9pm.

Mars is easy to find during January too. It's that red-coloured "star" in the west just after sunset.

Yellowish-coloured Saturn rises in the east about midnight and has always been a telescopic favourite. Since 2009 the rings have been getting wider after being closed for so long as the planet tilts in its orbit. It takes Saturn a little more than 29 years, in earth time, to orbit the sun.

With any luck, you might catch a really cool meteor shower before dawn all this week. Astronomers expect the Quadrantid meteor shower to put on an especially good display for early risers when the sky is clear. The best time should be 3am to 6am, when you might spot dozens of meteors an hour.

Because you don't need telescopes or other equipment, observing meteor showers is a great social activity. Relax in a reclining lawn chair and look up. Bring a thermos of hot tea or coffee and snacks and make it a party.

Whether you view the night sky with your naked eye, binoculars, or a telescope, there are a few tips to enhance the experience. A dark location is always helpful. No matter how much light surrounds you, more is always worse. Turn off any lights you can. Also, allow 15 minutes or more for your eyes to adapt to the darkness; you'll soon see more.

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